Author Tags: Architecture, Journalism

A former journalist who taught at the School of Journalism at the University of Regina, Nick Russell moved to Victoria and re-published Morals and the Media, Second Edition (UBC Press, 2005 $39.95), an updated examination of ethics that includes discussion of media convergence, on-line journalism, media ownership and the new phenomenon of the "web log".

Victoria Hallmark Society president Nick Russell, along with Camosun College anthropology instructors Brenda Clark and Nicole Kilburn, also co-edited Victoria Underfoot: Excavating a City's Secrets (Harbour 2008).

Russell has self-published Glorious Victorians: 150 Years/150 Houses – Celebrating Residential Architecture in BC’s Capital (Friesen's / Sandhill / Old Goat Publishing $34.95 2011) to reflect changing architectural fashions that tell a story about the prosperity of British Columbia's capital city. What is Queen Anne style? Did a premier live here? Who were the great architects? What important buildings have been lost over the years? And what will tomorrow's heritage buildings look like? 9780987788900

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Victoria Underfoot: Excavating a City's Secrets

[BCBW 2011] "Journalism"

Glorious Victorian Homes
Review (2017)

by Nick Russell

(Victoria: Touchwood Editions, 2016, 213 p., illus.)

Glorious Victorian Homes is vintage Nick Russell, written with verve, wit, and deep insights about Victoria’s architectural heritage. Russell is well known and highly regarded for his volunteerism as a leader in preserving Victoria’s architectural heritage. The book under review builds on a previous venture by Russell, his Glorious Victorians: 150 Years, 150 Houses (Old Goat Press, 2011), as well as on the continuously up-dated and award- winning publication series, “This Old House: Victoria’s Heritage Neighbourhoods” (Victoria Heritage Foundation, 1979-2014). This four-volume set by the Foundation offers historical and contemporary photos and well-researched descriptions of the architecture, architects, builders, and principal early owners of over 900 registered heritage houses in Victoria, the Capital Regional District’s oldest municipality. A recent, complementary addition to this fine effort is another award winner by the Foundation, an on-line, interactive GIS (Geographical Information System), which facilitates exploring individual houses described in the four volumes within their wider neighbourhood context.
The Foundation’s four volumes were produced for the City of Victoria. Working with a team of knowledgeable experts, including William Muir and Jennifer Nell Barr, and funded by all levels of government, Nick Russell contributed greatly to the success of this series as researcher, writer, and Production Editor. As he wryly acknowledges in Glorious Victorian Homes, “I have tried hard not to rely on This Old House for the background on the houses, preferring to do my own research. But if readers occasionally encounter a similarity in a house description here to This Old House, that may be because I wrote many of those descriptions in This Old House!”
In Glorious Victorian Homes, after a rather brief introduction that establishes the book’s purpose and context (more on this later), Russell sets to work. His devices for commenting on a carefully-selected group of “glorious,” case-study houses rely on polished skills of photographic and documentary analysis. The book comprises a succession of carefully-wrought photographs by Russell and his pithy descriptions of individual houses, their architectural features, and the interesting people who made these houses their homes. Thus there is commentary on both the material and social elements that distinguish these capital city, “Victorian (play-on-words) Homes.” This playful use of language is carried forward cleverly in the pleasing design of the book: the essential colour motif appearing throughout is purple. Surely not by chance, but never mentioned, Queen Victoria wore a purple dress to the Great London Exposition in 1862, the very year that Victoria was incorporated as a city!
Russell is a skilled photographer. Each of the one hundred and forty-seven featured houses are photographed from a street-view perspective. For some of these single-family residences, there are close-ups of prominent architectural elements—brackets, chimneys, dormers, finials, porch columns, shingles types, windows of all shapes, and other details. Judging by the frequency of their appearance, Russell finds finials, those vertical elements emphasizing the peak of a roof, especially enchanting! A useful glossary defines these and most other mentioned architectural elements. There is also a valuable reference graph of Victoria’s year-by-year building history. All of the featured houses are referenced by street name and house number and located on a city map at the close of the book, which will be a useful aid to those architectural buffs who go in search of their personally identified, must-see houses. Occasionally, a map of a street or an image of a streetscape is introduced within the text; more of each would have been useful to establish the wider spatial and social context of house and home.
In a related way, a reader familiar with the work of the Victoria Heritage Foundation might will wonder why no reference is made to the Foundation’s recently created on-line GIS (Geographical Information System), which offers an easily-accessible way for readers to benefit from the author’s authoritative analyses. Viewers of this GIS can zoom in, via aerial photography and street-view tools, to examine not only a heritage house, but also to discover that Victoria’s residential neighbourhoods are notably diverse in their architectural styles, with most streets displaying houses built in different building eras stretching from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. This pattern is a hallmark of the Greater Victoria region, where on the eve of World War I, there were well over 300,000 building lots for a population of some 30,000 people. The need to fill the many vacant lots bedeviled the City of Victoria’s and suburban municipality’s policy makers through to the mid-twentieth century. But the unexpected result for Victoria’s earliest laid out neighbourhoods is a rich and pleasing variety of different housing styles. This situation is quite unlike larger Canadian cities, where many, if not most, nineteenth and early-twentieth century subdivisions were built-out in a very short period of time, with the result that a majority typically display few contrasting architectural styles. Photos of houses in their wider streetscape context can add appreciably to the our understanding of a particular house’s significant characteristics within a city’s architectural landscape.
To detail his version of the City of Victoria’s architectural history, Russell organizes the unfolding of this historical chronicle by using a dozen, mostly easily-recognized styles or categories. These form short “chapters” that include well-honed, period-specific titles such as “Early Vernacular & Homestead,” “Gothic Revival,” “Tudor Revival,” and “Art Deco & Art Moderne.” The use of these terms seems to suggest that Victorians, citizens that is, were largely intent on adopting examples of universal building styles, perhaps by selecting an appealing dwelling from a pattern book of house plans, or by asking their builder or architect to copy a house seen elsewhere—just as we do today.
Russell does not pursue this broader line of analysis here; it was not his purpose, nor should it have been for this venture. But someday, I hope, as do others, that he will turn his attention to write about this and other themes of Victoria’s architectural history that need telling, such as changing building technologies, the interior arrangement and use of rooms, the factors causing the shift from one fashionable style to another, or the links between the migration of different socio-ethnic groups to Victoria and the resulting localized adoption or adaptation of particular architectural styles. Victoria is a place that some architectural historians have called a “British Imperial Outpost.” Or does Victoria’s architectural history owe more to cultural ties with its southern neighbour, the United States? Now that Russell and his colleagues have assembled an invaluable data base of Victoria’s heritage houses for further study, the opportunity exists to delve into broader themes that mark the architectural heritage of the city. Besides his considerable skills as researcher and photographer, Russell’s informed, original, and succinct discussion of a selection of the renowned Samuel Maclure’s architectural contributions to Victoria’s landscape suggests that he is exceptionally well-equipped to advance this task; or at least to offer tutelage to the next generation of architectural historians. And he is equally well positioned, by virtue of a keen and roving eye, to assess the architectural gems of the older suburbs that make up metropolitan Victoria, such as Oak Bay, Saanich, and Esquimalt.
Adding a certain, beguiling charm to the standard classification scheme are some captivating groupings, for instance, sections on “Passing Fancies,” “Glorious Eccentrics,” and “Brick Beauties.” This is the witty Russell at his best. Regarding “passing fancies,” Russell points out that for Victoria’s homeowners, some popular North American architectural styles failed to “catch the public imagination.” These include the Georgian, Mansard, Mission, and Shingle styles, all of which found preference in other North American regions, whether in cultural hearth areas or peripheral regions, but not in Victoria. One wonders why? At the same time, as revealed in the section “Glorious Eccentrics,” irreplaceable houses by gifted architects like Francis Rattenbury are brought to the fore, adding depth and divergence to the overall pattern. The “eccentrics” discussed speak to Russell’s ability to separate the “wheat from chaff” in the city’s architectural landscape, giving the reader confidence in his overall selection of case-study houses.
And this is the overarching strength, the considerable merit of Glorious Victorian Homes. It is a carefully-rendered guidepost and introduction by a knowledgeable and talented writer to the City of Victoria’s architectural heritage. The scope is wide ranging. Some of the City’s oldest colonial houses are drawn to our attention. So, too, is the need to give recognition to mid-twentieth century modernist dwellings. A gentle, realistic plea is made to preserve this heritage. Through his own personal efforts at restoration, by his volunteerism, and by sharing his considerable research on Victoria’s architectural past in the excellent Glorious Victorian Homes, Nick Russell has created a solid base to spur on both public interest and further scholarly analyses of the architectural history of that most glorious and Victorian of places, British Columbia’s capital city.

by Larry McCann